When Europeans first reached the islands of Polynesia, they found the beautiful scenery, friendly people and relaxed way of life to be, in a word, paradise. Many sailors attempted to jump ship, longing for their own thatch-roofed hut beneath the palms. They were probably quite disappointed when their captains forced them back to their boats at gunpoint.
Centuries have passed, yet it's surprising how the ideal of paradise has remained the same—and surprising how close French Polynesia comes to fulfilling it. The islands are still largely quiet and move at a slow pace; the water is still amazing shades of blue or green; the mountains still rise dramatically above the sea. And though the people may spend more time buzzing around on scooters than paddling outrigger canoes, they still (cliched as it may sound) spend an inordinate amount of time humming or singing.
But as with most things beautiful, French Polynesia isn't easily had. A thatch-roofed hut can now cost you US$240 a night or more, and there are few bargains to be found in food, activities or transportation. That said, those who can afford a vacation in these islands aren't likely to be disappointed. And were it not for the price tag, you might be tempted to stay forever.
History Anthropologists theorize that seafarers in great canoes landed in the islands at least 2,000 years ago. The ancient Polynesians probably came from other Pacific islands—Fiji, Tonga and the Samoas—to the west of French Polynesia. European explorers passed through the islands as early as the mid-1500s, but it wasn't until the 1700s that extensive contact took place. The accounts of the great English explorer Captain James Cook and others described Tahiti as a place of beauty, abundance and, perhaps most intriguing, few sexual prohibitions. The islands' temptations played a role in the famous mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty, when the mutineers cast Captain Bligh adrift and returned to the pleasures they had enjoyed on Tahiti.
Whether or not they truly were an unspoiled paradise, the islands quickly lost their allure after Europeans introduced new diseases and weapons. By the mid-1800s, the population had plummeted, and the islands were wracked by warfare. In the colonial wrangling of the 19th century, France laid claim to the area, and today it remains an overseas territory of that nation. In the 1960s, France moved its controversial nuclear testing program to the remote Tuamotu islands of French Polynesia. The resumption of testing in the 1990s sparked riots on Tahiti, but with the tests over, things have returned to a relatively tranquil state.
The income of the average French Polynesian is high by South Pacific standards, but the islands also have a very high cost of living. Tourism has become a big part of the economy, and the government is heavily promoting the fishing industry. Black pearl and copra (coconut) production also serve as important sources of income. Nonetheless, the islands receive a lot of support from taxpayers in France.
Geography The entire French Polynesian territory is sometimes incorrectly referred to as "Tahiti," but it actually consists of dozens of islands and atolls spread across a wide swath of the South Pacific, roughly midway between South America and Australia. Five archipelagos make up the territory, and each has distinctive cultural and geographical features.
The Society group, which includes Tahiti, is the most populous of the island chains. They are "high islands"—volcanic peaks surrounded by a coral reef and a calm lagoon. To the northeast are the Tuamotus, a large group of flat coral atolls that are often made up of a thin strip of land ringing a very large lagoon. Beyond the Tuamotus are the distant Marquesas Islands, which are very mountainous. South of the Society group are the Australes and, to the southeast, the Gambiers, both containing a combination of atolls and high islands. Travelers primarily frequent the Society Islands (especially Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora) and to a much lesser extent, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. The other archipelagoes are even more remote.
Snapshot The islands' foremost attractions are relaxation, spectacular scenery, scuba diving, snorkeling, yachting, archaeological sites, mountains, music, dance, fishing, and luxurious, uncrowded resorts.
French Polynesia is for travelers interested in the classic South Pacific experience: clear water, gorgeous scenery, quiet surroundings and friendly, interesting people. French is the common language, but visitors confining themselves to the major tourist islands will find that English is widely spoken. A more serious obstacle is the cost. French Polynesia can be an expensive place to vacation, though some budget options exist.
Potpourri Black pearls have become an important industry in French Polynesia, and, as visitors quickly discover, they are heavily marketed to tourists. On the busy islands, every shop seems to be selling pearls. Many islands offer pearl-farm tours where you can see how they're created and, of course, make a purchase.
Surfing celebrity Laird Hamilton claims that a wave he surfed at Havae Pass, Teahupoo, was the largest wave ever ridden in Tahiti. The Teahupoo wave is considered one of the best but most dangerous waves in the world. An international surf contest is held there each May, and crowds from all over Tahiti come in hopes of getting autographs from famous surfers.
"PK" on an address refers to the white stones placed alongside roads to mark the distance around an island.
Prior to World War II, few outsiders had ever heard of Bora Bora. The arrival of thousands of soldiers shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that. Although never involved in actual battles, Bora Bora owes much of its infrastructure, including its airport, to U.S. construction crews.
The metal rings that are often seen around coconut trees are to stop rats from climbing up and gnawing the coconuts. Until about 10 years ago, these rings were often made from old newspaper printing sheets and you can still sometimes find newspaper print on the older rings.
Perhaps owing to their French heritage, the islands see some topless sunbathing, especially in resort areas. But given that the islands receive more visitors from the U.S. than from France, the majority of beachgoers keep all parts of their swimwear in place.
Hinano beer is named after the flower of the pandanus plant, which smells somewhat like beer. The leaves of this same plant are used to weave local hats and baskets.
Tahiti was the setting for the 1961 production of Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. Moorea appeared in the 1984 telling of the tale, The Bounty, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.
The island of Huahine took a direct hit from a cyclone in 1998. Among the casualties was a resort hotel near the airport, the remains of which can be visited (although few people take the time). The sight of bare tile floors open to the sky and a swimming pool filled with debris makes the site look like some odd sort of ancient ruin.
Destinations in French Polynesia
Bora Bora Hyperbole seems to surround Bora Bora (often referred to with a singular "Bora" by locals). James Michener called it "the most beautiful island in the world," which may be going too far, though its steep mountain peak and brilliant lagoon certainly are beautiful. More recently, Bora has been targeted by some travel writers as the French Polynesian island where tourism has gotten out of control—too many hotels, too many people, too much traffic. The island does get a lot of visitors (many of them from Japan and the U.S.), but it's still a far cry from a Cancun- or Florida-style buildup. (Some of the bustle results from the fact that Bora is rather small compared with larger tourist islands like Moorea.) The amazingly clear blue-green water alone will be enough to satisfy most visitors.
The island's airport sits on a motu, part of the narrow coral ring that surrounds the main island, so soon after you arrive you'll be treated to a boat ride across the lagoon. (Air Tahiti operates a large shuttle, and many of the larger hotels have their own boats.) On the way, you'll get plenty of nice views of Bora's flat-topped peak (provided it's not shrouded in clouds). The island's main village is Vaitape. Most visitors first see it as they transfer from their airport boat to a shuttle van. The many gift shops and car rental companies make it seem less colorful than some Polynesian communities, but it's a pleasant place to while away an hour or so. The village's charming yellow church is poised against the green backdrop of the mountainside. Inexpensive roadside cafes with names like Bora Bora Burger are a welcome relief from the pricey fare at the hotels.
You'll find the usual lineup of Polynesian excursions on Bora: snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, shark feeding and island tours. And perhaps more than on any other island, you're likely to see thrill-ride-style activities such as parasailing and Jet-Skiing. You can also rent a bicycle, motor scooter or small car to circle the island on its two-lane, 20-mi/30-km highway. Jeep safaris take you up steep tracks to interior viewpoints. Several large cannons installed during World War II can still be visited. (Bora was the site of a large U.S. base during the war.) Several ancient ceremonial sites, or marae, are also open to visitors.
If you get the opportunity, have dinner at the island's most famous eatery, Bloody Mary's. In a sense, it's one of those places famous for being famous: Every celebrity to visit Bora ends up there (you'll see their names proudly posted). Celebs aside, we like the south seas/castaway motif that includes a sand floor and bar stools fashioned from wooden stumps.
But more than anywhere else in French Polynesia, Bora's around-the-island sights take a back seat to relaxing at a resort (assuming you can afford to stay at one—this is French Polynesia's most expensive island). Plan on a three-night stay. If you're going to splurge on an over-water bungalow, Bora is a good island to do it on, because the lagoon is truly spectacular. Once you slide open your glass coffee table and start feeding the fish that are swimming below your living room, you may never leave your bungalow. 160 mi/260 km northwest of Papeete, Tahiti.
Our favorite of the Society Islands (the most visited of French Polynesia's archipelagoes), Huahine is a great choice for anyone who wants to see something aside from the main tourist islands (Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora). It's uncrowded and untouristy enough to fit most people's expectations of a sleepy Polynesian isle, yet it has a couple of upscale resorts and enough tours and outfitters to make it easy to do things. Plan three nights at the minimum, five if you're capable of kicking back to full relaxation mode.
The small town of Fare (pronounced FAH-ray) is a big part of the island's charm. Small stores, restaurants, guesthouses, warehouses and assorted offices line its two main streets, one of which is along the water. It's a bustling place on weekday mornings or anytime that a freighter pulls in. Trucks, children, tourists and dogs scamper about, intent on their missions. But take a walk along the main drag on a Sunday, and you'll think you're in a ghost town.
Because Huahine has limited public transportation, having your own car is a big advantage. The usual around-the-island drive on Huahine actually involves two islands that are separated at one point by a narrow channel (there's a bridge).
The larger island, Huahine Nui, is where the airport and Fare are located. A treasure trove of ancient sites can be visited on the northeast corner of Huahine Nui, near the village of Maeva. Several maraes can be seen just off the main road, fronting an inland lake. Others can be seen by taking a short hike up the mountainside. These ancient ceremonial sites now appear as stone-floored plazas. Also along the lake is Fare Potee, a museum housed in a replica of a traditional building. The most interesting archaeological sites are in the lake, however. V-shaped fish traps are visible in narrow parts of the waterway and are thought to have been constructed centuries ago. They're still used today. If you're lucky, you may see locals harvesting the fish from a boat.
Like many French Polynesian islands, Huahine does not have a lot of sand beaches—the protective reef prevents them from forming. The only sand beach of note on Huahine Nui is not far from Maeva, at the Sofitel Coralia Heiva resort. Visitors can use the beach, so long as they don't appropriate beach chairs and other items intended for hotel guests. Another option when you want some shore time is to head for one of the motus (small sandy islets) just off the main island. You'll need a boat to get there (tour companies run motu excursions). Hanging out on a deserted isle for a few hours is a great experience, provided you have provisions (food, water, beer) and some shade. Motu Topati, on the island's east side is an especially nice getaway.
Huahine Iti, the southern half of Huahine, is less populated than the northern half and has fewer attractions. A drive around the shore road yields some nice views of the lagoon and the waves pounding against the distant reef. A few guesthouses and resorts are situated on the far southern end of the island, near the village of Parea. Some of them have access to the nice sand beach there.
There are good spots for surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving around the islands. Two scuba operators run trips—one based in Fare, one at the southern end of Huahine Iti. Fishing and sightseeing boat trips are also available. La Petite Ferme, a horse stable near the airport, offers horseback rides.
A typical outing runs along a section of beach, then down many less scenic roads and across a portion of the lakeshore. Unless you absolutely love horses, you may want to save the riding for another island. It can be a long, hot expedition with little in the way of tour chatter to liven things up. 110 mi/180 km northwest of Papeete, Tahiti.
Moorea One of French Polynesia's "big three" tourism islands, Moorea sits right next door to Tahiti, just a five-minute flight from the international airport or a 20-minute ferry ride from Papeete's harbor. Despite their proximity, Moorea is quite different from the capital. There's no urban buildup (in fact, the populated areas are villages more than towns), and the large island absorbs its many visitors with few signs of stress. With a turquoise lagoon, several bays and steep mountains, it ranks with Bora Bora in the looks department. All in all, it's a terrific place to spend three nights, though many devote a week or more to the island.
A variety of sights are scattered around the island. Plan to take the better part of a day to circle the coastal road and make a visit to the interior. Lots of tour companies are available to take you to the highlights if you don't want to drive yourself.
Be sure to take the winding road up to the Belvedere Lookout, which begins at the foot of Cook's Bay, one of Moorea's two large inlets. The Belvedere offers a panoramic view of both of Moorea's bays as well as the mountains surrounding them. On the way up or down, you can stop at several ancient marae that have been excavated from the underbrush. Some of the sites were once used for archery competitions.
On the west side of Cook's Bay, look for the turnoff to the Moorea Distillery and Fruit Juice Factory. There's really no tour to speak of—it's mostly an elaborate gift shop where you can taste and purchase the company's liqueurs and liquors. Lots of other souvenir merchandise is available, as well.
As the road loops around Opunohu Bay, you'll pass the Kellum Stop, a botanical garden. It's the remains of what was once an immense estate owned by a U.S. businessman. Guided tours are conducted only in the mornings Tuesday-Saturday. Beyond Opunohu Bay, the road reaches the busy Hauru Point area, where several resorts are located, as well as a string of shops, restaurants and bike/car rental offices. From there, the road heads down the island's west coast. Tiki Village is the main attraction in this stretch. It's a Polynesian theme park of sorts, with traditional-style buildings and craft demonstrations. Elaborate dinner/dance shows are staged there several nights a week. Farther south, at Haapiti, make a stop at the pretty Catholic church on the inland side of the road.
The southern curve of the island is dotted with small villages that are populated by locals more than visitors. You may see children surfing just offshore. Over on the island's east coast, near the village of Afareaitu, are two tall waterfalls. You can see them from the main road, but if you want to get closer, you need to head inland along some rough roads, then hike. Those on organized jeep tours will have an easier time getting there, especially if there has been a lot of rain.
Scuba diving, snorkeling and trips aboard submersible craft are popular on Moorea. Most resorts have excursions and facilities available. Try to find a lagoon excursion that includes a trip to feed the rays; the rays are accustomed to being fed and will swim up to for their snack. A Dolphin Encounter is offered at the Moorea Beachcomber. Participants get to interact with the animals in an enclosed pool. If you prefer to see dolphins in their natural surroundings, check into the boat trips conducted by Dr. Michael Poole, a renowned dolphin expert based on the island. 12 mi/20 km northwest of Papeete, Tahiti.
Raiatea Near Bora Bora and Huahine in the Society group, Raiatea is a large and tall volcanic island whose central mountains reach heights of 3,350 ft/1,000 m. (Mount Temehani is the highest point—be sure to see its radiant tiare apetahi flowers.) Its twin island, Tahaa, sits just across a mile-wide lagoon. Despite its size, Raiatea has less to offer visitors than do Tahaa and nearby Huahine and Bora Bora. Its central location and large lagoon have made it popular with yachters, however. Those chartering a boat to cruise the Society Islands may well begin and end their trip there.
Uturoa is the largest town on Raiatea and the second largest in French Polynesia, but it offers relatively little to do. In an effort to make the island more appealing to tourists, especially those arriving by cruise ship, the government recently funded the construction of a new port area with a palm-lined promenade, a man-made white-sand beach and a few upscale boutiques. Try to visit on a market day (Wednesday and Friday mornings are best), when the whole island turns out to shop and trade and greet the commercial freighters delivering and picking up goods. The island has a large Chinese population, and many of them operate stores that carry T-shirts, sandals, pareu cloth, liquor, canned foods and other staples.
Rent a car, bicycle or scooter to explore the 50 mi/80 km of partially paved coastal road. The primary sight is Marae Taputapuatea. At the time of European contact, this was the most sacred marae in all of Polynesia. When new ceremonial sites were constructed on other islands, a stone from Taputapuatea would be incorporated in their designs.
Neighboring Tahaa Island is sometimes referred to as Vanilla Island because of its many vanilla plantations. A shuttle boat operates between Uturoa and Tahaa with several trips a day Monday-Friday. Water taxis are also available. Tahaa is even more low-key than Raiatea. Visitors should plan to relax, then relax some more. 135 mi/220 km northwest of Papeete, Tahiti.
A name synonymous with tropical relaxation, Tahiti is now the busy hub of French Polynesia. Most of the activity is centered around the city of Papeete (pronounced pah-pay-EH-tay). It's the part of the island most visitors see, if only in passing. Papeete's Faaa Airport handles all international flights and many interisland planes, and many of the cruise and freighter excursions begin at Papeete's harbor. We recommend you stick around for at least a two-night stay, however. As the only real city in French Polynesia, Papeete can teach you a lot about life in the South Pacific. And although you will experience some traffic jams and noise, it's relatively clean, safe and efficient for a city in the developing world.
Start with a walk along the harbor. It's tempting to sign on with one of the many yachts advertising for crews to exotic ports. Cargo ships, ferries and large cruise ships are also part of the mix, as are the roulottes (snack trucks) parked along the waterfront. Just a few blocks inland is the Papeete Market, which is a must-see. Catering to both tourists and residents, it includes handicrafts, flowers and fresh-food items. There's lots of local color—people sitting on the floor making flower leis, tables full of brilliantly colored fish, locals drinking Hinano in the upstairs bar/restaurant. The crafts are largely souvenir grade, but it's a good place to pick up small knickknacks and woven-pandanus items.
For pricier fare, you'll find galleries, pearl shops and designer-clothing stores on nearby blocks, especially near Vaima Centre. The Vaima complex is also home to the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, which explains the pearl-growing business and gives you yet another chance to make a purchase. Papeete is one of few places in French Polynesia where things remain lively well into the night. Try to visit at least one of the clubs or discos to watch the locals cut loose on the dance floor.
Tahiti has one big advantage over other islands as far as visitors are concerned. It has a frequent, reliable and inexpensive form of public transit—Le Truck. These modern buses follow set routes and can transport you short distances in and around Papeete or all the way around the island. They're safe and a great way to immerse yourself in local life.
If you've got the time to venture out of Papeete, we suggest you head out along the north shore of the island. Make a stop at Point Venus, on the outskirts of Papeete. Matavai Bay, which is enclosed by the point, was used as an anchorage by many of the early European ships to reach Tahiti. Captain Cook built a fort on the point during his first visit to the island. The black-sand beach near the point is now a popular seaside destination. Farther east is the Arahoho Blowhole, where water from incoming waves explodes through a hole in the rocks.
Tahiti has something of an hourglass shape with a larger portion (Tahiti Nui—where Papeete is located) and a smaller one (Tahiti Iti). If you continue along the coastal road, you'll reach the town of Taravao, where the two portions of the island meet. Here you can choose to head along the north coast of Tahiti Iti toward Tautira or along the south coast to the surfing town of Teahupoo. Both these roads end in a dead end, and the eastern portion of Tahiti Iti can be reached only by boat or on foot. A little past the blowhole is the turnoff for the Trois Cascade (three waterfalls), which is a short walk from the parking area. If you continue to circle Tahiti Nui, you'll soon reach the Gauguin Museum, which details the artist's life and has some reproductions of his work. The wonderful Harrison Smith Botanical Garden is right next door. It has a lovely miniature forest of Tahitian chestnuts and other examples of local plantlife. From there, the road circles back toward Papeete. About 9 mi/15 km from the city, you'll reach the Museum of Tahiti and Its Islands, which has good historical and cultural displays.
DINING Seafood rules in this watery territory, and a common local delicacy is poisson cru, raw fish marinated in coconut milk. Tuna and mahimahi are also popular and are prepared in a variety of ways—don't miss the opportunity to try them in vanilla sauce. In fact, rich sauces and other aspects of French cuisine are a big part of cooking in the territory, although the Chinese also have definitely made their mark with rice and noodle dishes. Those who don't eat seafood will find beef to be the most common item in main dishes, usually entrecote (rib steak). For some reason, chicken is rarely served, though all of the islands are loaded with free-ranging fowl. The longtime Polynesian staples taro and breadfruit aren't common in tourist-oriented restaurants, but don't pass up the chance to try them.
As with most things in French Polynesia, eating out can be expensive, but it's not outrageous. Prices are generally comparable with those in most large cosmopolitan cities. Two types of inexpensive eateries are available: roulottes (food trucks—most complete with stools and a dining counter) and "snacks" (small restaurants that usually serve sandwiches and basic fare such as chow mein and sashimi). Good food can be found at both, but use discretion when making your choice. Another good way to trim your food costs is to buy the delicious and inexpensive French baguettes sold at grocery stores. A do-it-yourself Continental breakfast with the bread can propel you well into the afternoon. As you might expect, the large resort hotels have some of the priciest menus, though the quality is generally quite good.
SHOPPING The handicrafts made in the islands are the best mementos to take home. Favorites include woven-pandanus baskets, tapa-cloth decorations, hand-painted pareus (fabric wraps worn as a skirt or dress) and intricate wood carvings such as tiki statues, war clubs and ukelales.
Be careful about what you're buying, though. Some items you see in gift shops and markets, especially carvings and pareus, are mass produced in Indonesia and other countries. You can usually identify them because you'll see dozens of the exact same design.
Products made from monoi (coconut) oil, such as soaps and skin lotions, are also nice gifts and are relatively inexpensive. Tamanu oil (extracted from a local tree nut) is great for sunburns and healing wounds, and a variety of oils and lotions are available. We recommend you shop in the grocery stores for such items. The selection is just as good as in most gift shops, and the prices are better. Groceries also stock jams and preserves made from fruits grown in the islands, including pineapple and pamplemousse (a sweet grapefruit). The fruits are also used to make liqueurs. The Moorea Distillery and Fruit Juice Factory makes a wide range of flavors. You'll find them in gift shops, supermarkets and also at the distillery's own store on Moorea, where you can taste before you buy.
Two other "souvenirs" are popular, but they shouldn't be impulse buys. Black pearls are for sale in every large hotel, in thousands of shops and at the farms where they're grown. Prices may be lower than what you'd pay elsewhere in the world, but that's not to say they're cheap. We recommend you get some info on how to judge a pearl's quality before you buy. They can vary greatly. A more personal (and painful) decoration is the tattoo. Polynesia was one of the places where the practice originated, and tattoos are still worn proudly by many residents, men especially. A lot of talented artists work in the islands, many of them basing their work on ancient designs.
Shopping Hours: Generally Monday-Friday
Health Our advice is to avoid drinking unboiled tap water unless you're in Papeete or unless you're sure your hotel treats the water. Prepackaged water and other drinks are widely available. Mosquitoes are very plentiful, especially when you're out of the coastal breezes. They do not carry malaria, but cases of dengue fever have been reported in recent years, so take along insect repellent containing DEET and cover up as much as you can. On the larger islands, many of the doctors and dentists speak English. If you get really ill on the outer islands, you'll most likely be flown to Papeete, which has two hospitals and a number of smaller clinics. Vaccinations against hepatitis are recommended, and a vaccination against rabies isn't a bad idea. There are many dogs wandering about on all of the islands. Try to avoid them. The sun can be brutal, so take along a hat and plenty of sunscreen. Don't forget a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
Dos and Don'ts Do expect most stores and businesses to be closed for an hour or two at
Don't expect lots of gorgeous white-sand beaches. The coral reef that surrounds many of the popular islands prevents waves from crashing onto the shore—few waves means few natural beaches. Some resorts have trucked in their own sand to compensate. A trip to a sandy motu (islet) offshore is another solution.
Do pick up a fish identification guide so you'll know what you're looking at when you're snorkeling or diving.
Do stop by the Club Bali Hai on Moorea during one of their happy hours or dance performances. The hotel/time-share development is owned by the remaining "Bali Hai Boys" who helped pioneer the tourism industry in French Polynesia in the 1960s. You're sure to find one of the friendly owners at the bar, sharing colorful tales about the old days.
Don't be surprised to see some people in Papeete wearing the latest Parisian fashions while others sport the informal attire that's the norm on most of the other islands—simple dresses and "aloha" shirts in tropical patterns. Sandals are by far the favorite footwear, often inexpensive models made of plastic.
Do ask about the operator's policy on shark feeding if you plan to scuba dive or snorkel. Shark feeding is a common practice in French Polynesia, though some experts feel it's unwise to make the animals dependent on handouts and to make them associate people with food. If you agree, or if you just don't like the idea of being near hungry sharks, seek out an operator who doesn't engage in feeding, though they can be hard to find on some islands.
Do take along everything you need (from film to sunscreen) if you want to save money. Prices for most items are far higher in French Polynesia than what you'll pay at home. Also consider stowing a few food items in your suitcase. When the restaurant bills start adding up, that jar of peanut butter may be the most cherished item you have with you.
Do be careful if you're swimming near an offshore motu. At certain times, strong currents can be created that have the potential to sweep you out into the open sea.
Don't be frightened if you find a gecko lizard in your room (usually you'll find more than one). They're harmless unless you're an insect, though their high-pitched "barking" can be a strange sound to wake up to.
Do invest in a pareu and experiment with a few of the many ways to wear it.
Do try to visit the Papeete market early Sunday morning when the locals from all over Tahiti come to buy and sell fish and produce.
Don't be afraid to try out a few words in Tahitian. Tahitians are proud of their language and will appreciate any effort you make.
Geostats Passport/Visa Requirements: For a stay of up to one month, citizens of Canada and the U.S. need a valid passport and proof of sufficient funds and onward passage. Passports should be valid for at least six months after the date of entry. Reconfirm travel document information with your carrier before departure.
Languages: French, Tahitian, Marquesan, English.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Protestant, Catholic).
Time Zone: 9-10 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-9 and -10 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 689, country code.
Tipping In general, you don't need to tip, as it goes against the traditional Polynesian notion of hospitality. As tourism grows, tipping is slowly becoming more accepted, but it's still not expected in most situations. It's a good idea to take along T-shirts, caps, etc., to thank those who have assisted you in various ways.
Weather Almost any time is pleasant, with day temperatures generally in the 70s-80s F/23-32 C and nights in the 60s-70s F/15-27 C.
Transportation Le Truck on Tahiti is the local bus service. It has regular routes and low prices and generally operates from early morning until late afternoon, though some lines continue into the night. Some of the other Society Islands have a more limited Le Truck system, but there may only be one or two buses a day. Other islands have no bus service at all. When taking Le Truck, it is important to find out when the return service is, since many destinations are only serviced at certain times of the day. Taxis are available on many of the islands, but they're quite expensive. Car, motorbike and bicycle rentals are widely available.
Additional Reading Hidden Tahiti & French Polynesia by Robert Kay (Ulysses Press).
Tahiti Handbook by David Stanley (Moon).
Tahiti & French Polynesia by Jean-Bernard Carillet and Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet).
The Moon & Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (Viking Press). A novel based on the life of Gauguin.
Mutiny on the Bounty by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff (Little Brown & Co.). Classic novelization of the Bounty episode.
Noa Noa by Paul Gauguin (Dover Publications). The Tahitian journal of the French artist.
Tahiti: A Paradise Lost by David Howarth (Viking Press). A gripping, sad and well-written chronicle of the early contact between Europeans and Tahitians.
In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson (Penguin Classics). A posthumously published account of Stevenson’s travels with his wife and family through the Marquesas and Tuamotu islands in the late 1800s.
Cook Islands, Oceania
If you lumped together all 15 atolls that make up the Cook Islands, you'd still get a mere speck of landmass—less than a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state. But these tiny bits of land, flung out like expressionist spatters over a vast expanse of the South Pacific, are among the most idyllic pieces of paradise in the world.
For the most part, the islands haven't changed a great deal since the arrival more than a century ago of English missionaries and warships. The Cooks are as beautiful as ever. However, with the growing influx of visitors these days, you'll have to share the islands with a lot more people than before. The Cooks are a protectorate of New Zealand, and as aid from New Zealand has decreased, the government has turned increasingly to tourism for income. At times, the islands can seemed jammed with tourists.
The jump in tourism seems to have affected the islanders, too: In the past they opened their lives to travelers. Now they seem a bit more guarded in their friendliness.
History The islands were named after British explorer Captain Cook, though he was not the first European to come across them. One of the islands had been reported 200 years earlier (in the late 1500s) by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana. They had been preceded by the Polynesians, who went on to settle New Zealand (around 1350). The islands were placed under New Zealand administration in 1901 but were granted self-governing status in association with New Zealand in 1965. Maoris, who are descendants of the original Polynesians, today make up the majority of the population.
Geography The Cook Islands are a beautiful sampling of the South Pacific—from the high volcanic island of Rarotonga to the low hills of Atiu and the atoll reefs of Aitutaki. There are 15 main islands, located about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. They are divided into two groups, the Northern Islands (flat coral atolls) and the Southern Islands (raised coral atolls). The Southern Islands (nine of the 15 islands) are home to more than 90% of the population.
Snapshot Gorgeous scenery, an even climate year-round, deep-sea fishing (primarily off Rarotonga), dances, reef walking, horseback riding, snorkeling and scuba diving, volcanic peaks, beaches, crystal clear lagoons, sailing (hotels can arrange it), good pubs and thousands upon thousands of palm trees are the islands' foremost attractions.
The Cook Islands will appeal to travelers who are looking for an inexpensive South Pacific holiday on islands with excellent beaches. Don't go if you want to escape the crowds.
Potpourri Dancers in the Cooks are considered among the best in the South Pacific. The hura is a frenzied (and very suggestive) dance that makes Hawaii's hula look downright sedate.
Before 1989, there were no television broadcasts in the Cooks. Until then, TV sets were used solely for screening videos.
The scuba diving around Rarotonga and Aitutaki is excellent. The visibility is unusually high and the cost of diving and instruction is among the lowest anywhere. Another plus: Sharks are much less of a problem in the Cook Islands than they are elsewhere in the South Pacific.
There are many species of sluglike sea cucumbers (rori) to be found on Cook Island beaches. Hard as it may be for you to believe, the red-colored entrails of these slimy sea creatures are a local delicacy—and are usually eaten raw.
The island's mynah birds were brought from India to control insects. Now their loud squawks serve as unwelcome natural alarm clocks.
Kia orana means "welcome".
In the Cook Islands, there is often no differentiation between girls' and boys' names—the name given to a baby is usually reflective of an event that occurred around the time of birth.
Many of the outer islands have limited electricity supply. Generally, there's electricity in the morning and between
The Cook Islands have become an important tax haven and banking center, and many companies are incorporated there.
Paw-paw is another name for papaya.
There aren't any poisonous snakes on the islands, but don't step on the Crown of Thorns starfish or a Horny Stone fish: The first will hurt like crazy and the second might kill you.
Many Cook Islanders work in New Zealand, mailing their earnings to their families on the islands. In fact, more Cook Islanders live abroad (mainly in New Zealand and Australia) than actually live in the Cook Islands.
Destinations in Cook Islands
Rarotonga Rarotonga (pop. 11,100) is the largest of the three islands with developed tourist facilities and where most visitors stay. It is rather small (67 sq mi/108 sq km) and a little crowded. Avarua, the main town, is very compact and easy to see on foot—it's laid out along the harbor.
A good way to get oriented is to take a day and bicycle or motorbike along the flat road circling the island. There are a few potholes, but it's a pleasant trip and you can really see, feel, smell and hear the island. We took three happy days to walk the 25 mi/35 km around the island and were never far from a cold drink, meal or hotel. If you're in good physical condition, hike across the island to see the view from the base of The Needle (Te Rua Manga), a 1,355-ft/413-m volcanic spire (allow at least three hours). Also visit Ngatangilia harbor (where the Polynesians left for New Zealand) and the Cook Islands Christian Church in the town of Matavera (blue limestone walls and a cemetery with concrete graves—go to a Sunday service to hear beautiful singing). Other destinations include the National Cultural Center and the Cook Island Museum (both in Avarua), the Philatelic Bureau (stamps) and Polynesian ceremonial sites. It's also fun to take a ride on a glass-bottomed boat and to swim at Muri Lagoon (allow about two hours). Muri has one of the best beaches, in the southeast part of the island near the Sailing Club. If you visit the Arai-te-Tonga stone sacrificial altars just east of town, don't walk on the stones: They're considered sacred by the local people.
DINING The islands' specialties consist primarily of pork, seafood, fruit (oranges and pineapple) and vegetables (potatoes, taro and tomatoes)—quite good. Ika mata, fish marinated in coconut milk, is a unique and tasty dish. Whipping cream and fruit are used liberally in desserts. Be sure to attend a umukai, a traditional island feast similar to the Hawaiian luau. Rarotonga offers a wide variety of international cuisine. Local beverages include coconut water (the "national" drink), Atiu Island Coffee (locally grown pick-me-up) and Cook's Lager (the local brew).
SHOPPING Shops in Avarua offer colorful garments and pareus (a wrap-around tie-dyed cloth worn by both men and women), wood carvings, black and white pearls, shells, weavings, straw goods and excellent perfumes, colognes and soaps scented with fragrant tropical flowers. (A small factory in Avarua produces the South Pacific's best.) Prices are about 30% lower than what you would pay in French Polynesia. The Cook Islands' colorful stamps are collected worldwide, as are its $1 coins, which bear the likeness of Tangaroa, the Maori god of fertility, on one side and Queen Elizabeth on the other. (The queen was not amused when this coin was minted.) Shop for some of the local liqueurs. In stores, pay what they ask—there's no bargaining.
Rarotonga is a duty-free port, but it offers few bargains on perfumes, etc.
Shopping Hours: Monday-Friday
Health There are adequate medical and dental facilities (clinics) on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, though people with major medical problems will have to be flown to New Zealand. On the outer islands, there is no medical assistance. In Rarotonga, water and food are safe, but stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks when visiting the other islands. Take along tennis shoes (or those popular nylon and rubber "dive shoes") if you plan to go in the water—coral can be razor sharp. Take along sunscreen and plenty of insect repellent—though the mosquitos are not malarial, they can carry dengue fever, and they are often abundant. As nice as the Cook Islands are, they're not quite paradise.
In the event of a diving emergency, the Diver's Alert Network (DAN) will provide treatment advice and, if necessary, arrange for evacuation. Phone 919-684-8111 or 919-684-4326. Both lines connect to DAN's headquarters in the U.S. and accept collect calls.) DAN also answers health-related questions about diving. For more information, contact them at 919-684-2948 or toll-free 800-326-3822. http://www.diversalertnetwork.org.
Dos and Don'ts Do ask a bartender to concoct a creative cocktail for you in a whole green coconut.
Don't be surprised to find a slice of pineapple on your hamburger.
Do be prepared to be dragged up on stage to dance Polynesian style if you attend one of the popular "island nights" performances. Audience participation is actively encouraged.
Do be on the lookout for humpback whales if you visit the islands in August or September.
Don't wait for the green oranges to ripen—they're eaten that way (and are delicious).
Don't wear skimpy clothing or swimsuits when visiting the towns and villages—it's considered rude. Although topless bathing is illegal on the islands, this rule is not generally enforced on the hotel beaches.
Do take along a collapsible umbrella, as it rains periodically.
Don't be surprised to find that everything is done on "Cook Island Time" rather than on scheduled time (i.e., things will happen when they happen, not necessarily when you've been told they'll happen). You'll never "reform" the islanders, so just unwind, relax and take things as they come.
Do expect shortages of certain items, as almost everything is imported and sea shipment can be irregular.
Do take along the film you'll need—it's quite expensive on the islands.
Don't bargain. It is not part of Polynesian culture.
Geostats Official Name:Cook Islands.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Canadian and U.S. citizens must have passports with 12 months of validity after proposed date of departure from the Cook Islands. Visa is not required if staying less than 31 days. All vistors must have onward ticket and sufficient funds. There is an airport departure tax of NZ$25 for adults, NZ$10 for children 2 -11 years. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Languages: English, Cook Island Maori.
Predominant Religions: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist.
Time Zone: 10 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-10 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220/230 Volts.
Telephone Codes: 682, country code.
Tipping Do not tip, as it is considered an insult. If you do want to express your gratitude, most hotels have a box for contributions to the staff Christmas fund.
Weather The climate is very mild, ranging from the high 60s F/15-22 C in winter to the mid 80s F/30 C in summer. Be sure to take along a sweater, as the evenings can be quite cool.
Additional Reading An Island to Oneself by Tom Neale (Ox Bow Press). An autobiographical account of years spent living on Sunwarrow, a desert island in the Cooks.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific by Paul Theroux (Fawcett Books). Sea kayaking adventures through the Pacific, including the Cook Islands.